Mob Rule: Part 32
Jack drinks in acres of bluebells and the sight of expansive ranch lands as he chows down with Lyndon and Ladybird
By John Armstrong
The trip from Kansas to meet Lyndon in Texas was a long, dusty one. We’d done Missouri just before and I had to admire the way Sydney’s staff had finessed the speech writing. A Missourian who heard me talk in St. Louis, Independence, or Joplin would have had heart stoppage if he’d been at the fundraiser a few nights later in Kansas.
Missouri was a border state during the Civil War, never actually seceding but not quite supporting the federals either, and Missourians fought on both sides of the war or sat it out as best they could, as their consciences dictated. I danced around the state’s complex allegiances as much as the writers could manage, but in Kansas, firmly in the union, we made no bones about glorifying their forefather’s brave stand for truth, liberty, and freedom in the Great Conflict and exalting the Jayhawker spirit.
Across the line back in Mizoo, the term Jayhawker is a synonym for cowardice, murder, and rape. They can’t even speak the word without spitting on the ground afterwards. We weren’t even really in the South yet and it already felt like the war had never ended. They have long memories down there and they hold a grudge as tight to their bosom as any Irishman or Italian. My own loyalties left me feeling very alone at that point; in St. Louis we’d driven past the Biograph Theatre and I wanted to stop at the Dillinger shrine but I couldn’t even mention it. It was like going to Paris and not seeing Napoleon’s Tomb.
We weren’t even really in the South yet and it already felt like the war had never ended. They have long memories down there and they hold a grudge as tight to their bosom as any Irishman or Italian.
On one of the long rides through the night, when all we could see were oncoming headlights and depressing signs that mocked us with how many more hundreds of miles were still to go, I asked Sydney about the speechwriting. He was scribbling on one of his legal pads, writing things down and scratching them out and making little sounds of exasperation and triumph while he did.
He shrugged off the historical feuds and lingering hatreds of the various states. The trick, he said, is really to ignore the differences and find a common enemy.
“People want someone to blame and in this case it’s easy to find one, because the Bosses really are the problem. But I can’t take credit for it – it’s been done throughout the history of politics. Even in Shakespeare; Macbeth uses Banquo as a scapegoat when he has him and Fleance murdered.” He took his glasses off to scratch at a speck on the lens and polished them on his tie.
“Take a bunch of farmers and ranchers, most likely all of them baptized in a creek, and tell them all their troubles are caused by Italian Catholics? They’ll push each other aside to sign up.”
It explained the way the rhetoric in the speech was heating up, though. Lately, they’d had me comparing the bosses rule-by-decree to the worst of the Roman emperors and the first time I read the drafts, I had to stifle myself to keep from laughing out loud and made a note to remember the best parts; I thought Frank would be amused to know he was up there with Caligula and Nero, though he’d maybe laugh only briefly. Then he might likely take it personally.
But when I saw the reaction it got in front of an audience it didn’t seem funny at all. It was a sad lesson in humanity, discovering Sydney was right – people will believe almost anything if you say it loud and often enough.
Even prejudiced as I was I could see there were legitimate complaints you could make about how things were run – what place is any different? But some of the things we accused the Bosses of ranged from purposeful misstatement of fact to simply crazy.
Benny Siegel, mad from syphilis? Maybe – but he was a sick old man who never left his hotel suite. What did it matter what he was going to die of? Frank Costello getting his orders directly from the Vatican? Ridiculous.
I refused to even read the accusation about Meyer aloud – well, accusation is not quite right; they managed to imply it as ‘something everyone knows” without actually producing evidence or witnesses. The result was the same, no matter how it was worded; people would leave the hall believing Meyer Lansky was a practicing cannibal who preferred Christian babies at his dinner table.
I threw the copy across the room and told them there wasn’t going to be a speech tonight unless it was rewritten. To me this kind of crap undermined the whole enterprise, which I could have respected at least, if it were honest. But if the Families were so bad for the country, why was it necessary to trump up stuff like this?
This was the point where I finally came to the conclusion the cabal was evil, not just misguided. They would tell any lie, make and break any promise, steal from their supporters, and do it all without losing a wink of sleep. Either they were completely cynical or they believed so devoutly in the justness of the cause they could do no wrong in its service. I didn’t know which one was worse and wondered how much Johnson knew about them and how he’d react when he discovered it.
The irony was that all the lying, cheating, and stealing the champions of democracy were doing in order to gain power were things the Bosses would never do, simply because it was poor business. If people can’t trust you, you’ve got nothing.
I decided that much as I might like Sydney or Bobby, they simply had no honor. The word would stick in their throats.
This was the point where I finally came to the conclusion the cabal was evil, not just misguided. They would tell any lie, make and break any promise, steal from their supporters, and do it all without losing a wink of sleep.
The Johnson ranch is about 60 miles or so north of San Antonio and after too much of Kansas, the Texas landscape was a joy to see going past. Kansas may well have something you might describe as scenery but I couldn’t swear to it. All I saw were endless plains covered in pale brown dirt and corn stumps for variety. On occasion a hump of some sort would appear on the horizon but as we got to it was just some more dirt that had been left in a pile.
But Texas! Suddenly there were rivers, creeks, trees, gorges and gullies, hills, and hummocks with strange, twisted trees and squat prickly shrubs and eagles wheeling above it all. Along the sides of the road wild bluebonnets grew in the thousands.
At one point we saw something odd off to the side ahead and when we stopped it was a small fenced area made of old bedsprings, the handles of rakes and shovels, and wire. Inside the sectioned off plot were three rocks, one large and two smaller beside it. The hand-painted words read, “Molly, wife and loving mother, 25 years. Baby Jacob and Baby Nola, 3 and 4. Dead by fever and now with God. I will join by and by.” A hundred feet or so away a few weather-beaten boards still standing upright and some stacked foundation rocks were all that remained of their homestead. We got back in silently and drove away, the sad little plot disappearing in the red dust behind us.
The first sign we had of Lyndon’s ranch came some miles before we found the place proper. We were on the same hard-pack road but suddenly the fields on either side were fenced and the green and gold of the hay and grasses was now blotched with brown and white. Cows! Thousands of them on either side. I rolled the window down and heard them murmuring, ‘lowing” it’s called. They were beautiful, with huge brown eyes like puppies and the gentlest things you can imagine. Vanessa and I both wanted to get out and pet them but we were on a schedule. I developed a new rule following this, a corollary to Frank’s about uniforms – any activity that does not allow you to stop and play with animals should be critically reassessed.
Lyndon was sitting on the porch when we finally got to the ranchhouse.
I couldn’t believe all the fenced areas represented his land; it would be an enormous spread. I asked him about it and found I’d underestimated the ranch. “Oh hell, no” he said. “The stuff that isn’t fenced is recovering from grazing. We’ll use it again next year. You have to move the beeves around or they eat everything right to down to dirt and you have to seed it again.” I asked him how long it took to get to the end of his property and he said, completely serious: “By horse or truck?” That was about as much answer as I needed.
The rancho house was a long, white two-story clapboard building, blinding in fresh paint, and we sat there on the porch with them; they referred to it as “the gallery. “His wife asked if we cared for tea and much to Vanessa’s annoyance when she brought it out in a pitcher filled with ice and lemons, we discovered that in Texas, when people say tea, they mean the iced variety,
“We thought you’d enjoy some real Texas barbecue,” Lyndon said. “The boys brought in a nice beeve and put it on the spit. I don’t like to brag, but we make a fine sauce.”
“When he says ‘we” he means he does – I do the indoor cooking and Lyndon does all the outdoor cooking. Which means eight months of the year I get the night off.” His wife was a pleasant looking lady with dark brown hair teased high up in front.
“Bird, maybe you’d take Miss Vanessa off to freshen up? She’s been trapped in a car with a bunch of men for more hours than a lady should have to stand.” Mrs. Johnson led her away and Lyndon said, “How was the trip?”
I didn’t know if he meant the last few nights of the campaign or the drive, but Bobby answered him.
“Kansas and Missouri were good. Better than we expected, really.”
Lyndon tapped ash into a coffee can at his feet.
“I imagine you found it a considerable change from your previous engagements?”
I took this one.
“Very much. I see what you meant about it being a different planet. Or I’m beginning to see. But they seemed to love us.”
He dropped the butt into the can and said, “Well, I guess you’re doing all right, then. I’ve never had an overly high opinion of them I met, up that way. Most of ‘em could fall into a barrel of titties and come out sucking their thumb.” He stood up, pulled his pants out of his boots, and slapped at them. Dust rose in a cloud around him. “I’m going to check on the fire. You boys are welcome to go get settled in or join me, as you please.”
Vanessa and I had a room on the second floor with two wide, screened windows to let the breeze through. She was just coming back down the hall from the washroom – and lucky to have found it. In Texas, asking where it is will get you an answer like, “Oh, the commode is right the top of the hall.”
I changed into a clean sports shirt and light pants and hung my old ones up to dry out. Late spring in Texas is humid enough that you feel damp most of your waking hours, because you are. I used to wonder when I saw movies about Texas and the South where everybody is dabbing at themselves with a hanky all the time. Now I understood. It was because you can‘t fit a towel in your hip pocket.
We found Lyndon in the kitchen surrounded by bottles and jars of all sizes. He was stirring and tasting and adding ingredients as he went. Presently he opened a bottle of liquor and poured a long stream into a great metal pot on the stove.
“You don’t need a recipe?” Vanessa asked. She was leaning over the pot and breathing deeply. I could smell it from where I was, a rich mixture of garlic and tomatoes with a dozen other underlying smells I couldn’t separate. Whatever it was, I was all in favor of it.
“Recipes are for cowards, at least when it comes to cooking barbecue. Everyone starts with the same basic ingredients and after that, it’s an act of creation. No two batches alike.
“You mind to stir, Miss?” Vanessa took the wooden spoon, about the right size to paddle a small canoe, and Lyndon reached over the counter and retrieved a big can of coffee and shook grounds into the mixture.
“The coffee helps to give it that smoky taste and goes nice with the molasses and the whiskey.” He stuck a big finger in, licked it, considered it, and added some vinegar and salt.
“That about gets it.” He picked the big pot up and I opened the back door for him. Smoke rushed in from the fire, an open pit with half a cow on a thick spit. Lyndon put the sauce on the ground then went back in the house and came out with a rag mop like the one my mother used on the kitchen floor. He stuck it into the pot and began swabbing his mixture on the beef as it turned. Thick drops fell off into the coals and sent up a wonderful aroma. I began to suspect I might like Texas.
Dinner was a feast, served on wooden tables in the open air, big bowls of string beans and platters of fried okra to go with hot biscuits, potato salad, baked beans and slices of barbecued beef thick enough to shingle a house with. There were half a dozen tables seating maybe 70 people, though the others kept to themselves except to stop and thank the Johnsons for the meal as they took their plates back to the house. Lyndon said they were hired hands and generally ate at their own cookhouse, out of sight across the fields out where their bunkhouses were. Tonight being a special occasion it would have been impolite not to invite them as well.
I got the same feeling about Lyndon and his hired hands as I did from Frank’s relationship with his employees, that they genuinely liked and respected him, and I’d have bet they’d do about just about anything for his approval. The Kennedys could have learned a thing or to from both of them.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.